Missing in action: Films affected by actors' deaths

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Harrelson in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Hoffman's character Plutarch Heavensbee plays a leading role in the next two Hunger Games films

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The death of an actor during a film's production forces movie executives to question what to do next. How do Hollywood studios handle the issue?

Philip Seymour Hoffman had seven days left of filming on the final Hunger Games when he died from a suspected heroin overdose.

Although film studio Lionsgate has stated that all his scenes in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 had been completed, recent reports claim he still had one "crucial" scene to film.

With Hoffman's character playing a significant role in the final two parts of the dystopian franchise, movie bosses will be planning how to include him - if at all.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for films to lose their stars prematurely during production.

Examples include Oliver Reed, who died during the filming of Gladiator in 1999; Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 while working on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; and Brandon Lee, who was fatally wounded in an accident on the set of The Crow in 1993.

Each film employed different methods to continue production, including script rewrites, using digital visual effects and having new actors take over the role.

Still from Gladiator A body double was used to help complete Oliver Reed's scenes in 2000 release Gladiator

In the case of Gladiator, the film was rewritten to include previously filmed footage of Reed, along with a body double for wider shots. The double's head was digitally replaced with that of the late actor.

Visual effects supervisor Rob Harvey, who won an Oscar for his work on the film and now runs his own special effects company, was jointly responsible for recreating Reed on screen.

"When he died we had to make sense of the whole end of the film," he says. "It's a very weird thing to have to do - particularly then, when the technology wasn't really there at all.

"I sat down with the editor and went through all the rushes of Oliver. We had to find lines that were dropped and takes that weren't used to piece together a coherent sequence.

"We had to shoot pick-ups of Russell [Crowe] on a green screen and another of doors and bars so [Oliver] could speak to Russell though them, and we had to basically cut his performance out of it all.

"We only manipulated his beard [for continuity], but it was his head cut out and stuck on to the body double. Then we just mucked around with the cut as much as we could to make it work.

"It was a clever bit of directing and scriptwriting. We just tried to do it as tastefully as possible."

Harvey also worked on Terry Gilliam's Doctor Parnassus film, in which Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stepped in to play Ledger's character in various reshot parts of the film.

"With a film like that it looked like the whole thing was going to collapse," says Harvey. "But being a Gilliam movie, you can have anyone do anything really."

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus saw other actors replace the late Heath Ledger on screen

It's a costly business. But in most cases, productions will be covered for any necessary reworking by extensive insurance policies, enabling them to effectively remake the film from scratch if need be.

Standard feature film production insurance includes cast cover where, in the event of illness of injury, losses arising will be paid.

"Most of the time someone breaks a leg and you have to stand down a week or two because you can't film until the person is better," explains Matthew Torrible, director of TV and film specialists Quartz Insurance Brokers Ltd.


  • Marilyn Monroe, 1962 Something's Got to Give - never completed
  • Bruce Lee, 1973 Game of Death - incomplete version was initially released followed by 1978 feature-length release using new footage shot after his death
  • Natalie Wood, 1981 Brainstorm - completed using stand-in
  • River Phoenix, 1993 Dark Blood - completed with stills
  • Chris Farley, 1997 Shrek - recast with Mike Myers voicing title role
  • Aaliyah, 2001 The Matrix Reloaded - recast with Nona Gaye as Zee
  • Paul Walker, 2013 Fast & Furious 7 - production initially suspended, currently refilming

"In the event of a death, the insurance will either pay for you to fix it and then edit; pay to reshoot with another person and the necessary rewrites; or pay for the abandonment which pays for all the money production companies have invested up to that point."

Insurance companies may not pay out if the cause of death is linked to any previous medical history disclosed during required health checks and therefore excluded from the policy.

However, it is possible to insure against specific exclusions to mitigate that risk.

According to Torrible, it is very rare for a film to be abandoned "because there's a big commercial drive to get the production finished".

Because Hoffman's character is unlikely to be recast in the final instalments of The Hunger Games, special effects might be used in scenes that still require his presence.

Yet Rob Harvey is wary of the notion of creating a wholly computer-generated actor.

"Doing a digital version of somebody other than [in] a very wide shot is a bit of a strange one," he says. "They've got a problem to solve and I guess it's up to them how to solve it.

"They built a young Jeff Bridges [in Tron: Legacy], but he is alive and they were shooting the 'old' Jeff Bridges, so morally I don't know where anybody will stand on this.

"You can build a CG (computer generated) character, you can motion capture his performance from another scene and apply that to the model, but it's never going to be him. I personally would be a bit uncomfortable with it."

Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Hoffman, pictured with Donald Sutherland, had almost finished filming his Hunger Games scenes before he died

Dr Garth Twa, a senior digital film production lecturer at Ravensbourne College in London and deputy editor of Pure Movies, agrees. "With Philip Seymour Hoffman his appeal wasn't just his face, which would be easy to just CGI if it was an action movie.

"He was easily the most trusted and respected actor in Hollywood of a generation, so to get that level of acting and a nuanced performance wouldn't be possible.

"If it's a key scene they'd probably just rewrite so all his lines go to someone else, or 're-imagine' it."

Lionsgate has said it has no plans to change its scheduled release dates for Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, due out in November 2014 and November 2015 respectively.

However producers opt to proceed, fans will inevitably flock to cinemas and watch the film closely to try and spot the changes made.

"This is an extremely cold-hearted thing to say but it's a cold-hearted business - I think the studio is going to benefit greatly from this," Dr Twa says.

"Everyone is going to want to see it, just like everyone wanted to see The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger." The actor had died by the time that 2008 film was released.

"It's immediate public recognition, or free advertising."

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